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AZ Algae: It’s a Gas, Gas, Gas

September 28, 2009

TEMPE, Ariz. - Vast areas of Arizona and New Mexico could soon be supplying the world with Diesel fuel produced from algae. Arizona State University researcher Milton Sommerfeld says algae bio-Diesel should be commercially viable in two to five years.

Professor Sommerfeld, a plant biologist at ASU, has been working since the 1980s engineering algae strains that reproduce quickly and which have a high content of what's basically vegetable oil.

"It can be processed and refined to produce a variety of products. The algae oil is most easily converted to Diesel. But products such as gasoline or kerosene or others are things that one can get from that oil as well."

Sommerfeld says the biggest remaining hurdle to large-scale algae farming is attracting the necessary investment. He says that'll depend a lot on world petroleum prices and government subsidies.

He says studies have shown Arizona and New Mexico to be perhaps the best places in the world to grow algae for bio-Diesel.

"That's based on climate, based on available saline waters that can't be used for other purposes, and also vast land areas, areas that aren't amenable to typical crop plants."

Sommerfeld says there was a lot of interest in algae bio-Diesel last year when crude oil prices spiked well above 100 dollars a barrel. He says researchers are now focusing on reducing the cost of production to make the fuel competitive.

"It may not be economically feasible this year, but in two, three, five years it will be economically feasible. The process will be refined enough that we can make money at doing this."

Sommerfeld says if algae bio-Diesel had the same government subsidies as ethanol, it would be pretty close to being competitive even at today's prices.

Doug Ramsey, Public News Service - AZ